How do you even sum up 2016? With the terrorist attacks in Nice, Munich, Brussels, Orlando, Syria, and the rest of the Middle East? With the political landscape that consistently proved racism, misogyny, xenophobia and fear are still powerful tools in acquiring power? With the carnage in Aleppo? With the deaths of so many shining lights that did their best to bring hope, awareness and positive change to the world, including Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Prince, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Harper Lee, Muhammed Ali, Anton Yelchin, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Kenny Baker, Ron Glass, Debbie Reynolds and too many others to list here?
On a personal level, the year was marked by the death of my great-aunt and my reaction to it – which was not good. I was on mild anti-depressants for a while after undergoing what I can only describe as a prolonged existential crisis (everyone jokes about having them, but they're bloody awful to go through).
It's difficult to even look forward to the coming year, knowing that the next leader of the free world is a narcissistic buffoon whose taking of office emboldens all manner of disgusting hate groups.
But if there's one thing my 2016 experience taught me, it's this: It ended. I got better. The world kept turning.
And although the last twelve months brought a lot of shit, we don't yet know what else it brought. The first female president of the United States may have gotten an A+ on her political history paper this year. The future parents of the child who will one day find the definitive cure for cancer could have bumped into each other on the street. A story that will change the life of millions might have planted its seed in the boy or girl who will one day write it. Someone may have carried out a simple act of kindness that will eventually have world-wide ramifications.
We don't know yet – we're just going to have to stick around to find out.
This time last year I was optimistic about the future of female characters in entertainment media. After all, 2015 was the year of Imperator Furiosa, Katniss Everdeen, Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, Supergirl and Rey (Skywalker?) Aside from the obvious caveat that they were all white women, it was a banquet of three-dimensional and critically acclaimed lead females.
By comparison, 2016 was the year female characters were slaughtered en masse. Laurel Lance, Abbie Mills, Vanessa Ives, Liz Keen, Elektra Natchios – sure, some of these deaths were (or will be) reversed, but the shocking thing is that they were all the female leads of their respective shows.
Supporting characters didn't fare much better: Lexa from The 100, Camilla Marks from Empire, Mary and Nora from The Vampire Diaries, Denise Cloyd from The Walking Dead, Root from Person of Interest, Poussey from Orange is the New Black – what makes it especially chilling is that each and every one of these women were queer.
In the space of a week I watched Kaira get shot in the head at point-blank range on Indian Summers; followed by Vikings dispatching two of its reoccurring characters in a single episode: Yidu was viciously drowned in a river and Princess Kwenthrith stabbed to death. The show returned six months later and promptly shot Aslaug in the back.
In fact, the only death of a woman that was handled with dignity and respect was that of Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones. And seriously, if Game of Thrones has the best example of how a female character's demise should be handled, then something has gone terrifyingly wrong.
Other iconic characters were treated badly: Agent Carter was cancelled, Uhura was wasted in Star Trek Beyond, and most of the publicity surrounding the second season of Supergirl revolved around the introduction of her male cousin (to be honest, I wasn't particularly fazed by this, but it was definitely a talking point for a lot of people).
It was relentless.
Yes, we had Ghostbusters – but just look at the sheer amount of vitriol that surrounded its release, with the actresses enduring misogynistic and racial harassment on-line. Honestly, the next time I hear a guy say women are too emotional, I'm going to secretly think about the hysterical meltdown those dudes had over this movie and laugh my head off.
There is some light on the horizon, with Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel heading their own movies next year – but again, we're talking about white women. Black women, Asian women, First Nation women, Latina women ... they all deserve complex and three-dimensional heroes too, and God knows they deserve it after this garbage fire of a year.
Edit: since originally writing this, Sonequa Martin-Green has just been cast as the lead on Star Trek: Discovery, so – whoo hoo!
Edit: since that update, we've lost Carrie Fisher, our irreplaceable Space Princess. Because 2016 is determined to suck right till the end.
Yet for all of this, I'm an optimist. I truly believe that things can and will get better; that progress is being made – and will keep being made, even if it can feel excruciatingly slow sometimes, or that for every two steps forward we take one back. 2017 is going to be a difficult year in so many different ways, but it's when times are tough that artists get to work; telling stories that inspire, that galvanise, that punch holes in the status quo. And for my part, I'm going to do my best to promote them.
I've decided to present this retrospective in the same way I did last year, by simply listing the female characters I discovered, enjoyed and appreciated in 2016 but who (for reasons of there only being twelve months in a year) didn't make it onto any of my Women of the Month posts.
Some of them were introduced to the world in 2016; others arrived much earlier but only came to my attention this year. In each case, the woman in question piqued my imagination, either through her design, characterization or place within the narrative. Unfortunately there's not as much diversity here as there is in the "official" women of the month posts, and neither are there as many characters featured as last year – but in the latter case we'll just have to call it quality over quantity.
I wrote in my last Links and Updates post that I'd hopefully have this review up by the next day – hah! I had to put off writing for a week or so, as my initial reaction to Rogue One was not complete and absolute positivity. I enjoyed it without being blown away or bursting into tears or feeling desperate to see it again, yet having mulled it around in my brain over Christmas, some of its choices and innovations have started to work their magic. Since then I've been pretty consumed by what it delivered. Call it a delayed reaction.
But first let me remind you that Rogue One has been surrounded by the usual internet discourse on issues of diversity, politics, feminism, sexism and so on, to the point where it's making my head spin. On the one hand there are those who decided to boycott the film because of some perceived "anti-white" agenda, and others that are annoyed at the lack of women of colour across the entire Star Wars canon. Obviously I'm vastly more sympathetic toward one of these points-of-view than the other (hint: it's the latter) but there comes a point when I just want to sit down and watch a movie.
So I'm going to do myself a favour (and perhaps you as well) by judging Rogue One strictly on its own merits. This is a review of the movie, not the drama that surrounds it. For the most part.
I'm cutting it close to the finish line when it comes to this entry, but I dearly wanted Moana to finish up the year and her film didn't open until Boxing Day here in New Zealand.
But here she is: our latest Disney Princess and our first Pacific Islander one. In many ways she's exactly what I expected: spirited and stubborn with the patented Dreamworks Face (which has been steadily adopted by Disney over the years) and attributed with a number of familiar tropes: The Chosen One, Junior Knows Best, All Loving Heroine...
But her role in the narrative and among the canon of Disney Princesses is a unique one. In extremely generalized terms, past princesses have either been subdued by a sense of duty (the three original princesses) or defined by a desire to break free of her own life (the three Renaissance princesses).
Moana grapples with both these problems in trying to reconcile her responsibilities to her people with her great love of the ocean, but it's important that Moana doesn't hate her island or its people, just as she can occasionally fear the ocean's great vastness and depth.
Watching the evolution of Disney Princesses is fascinating, and Moana is a sure step on the way to more greatness. From femininity, to feistiness – and now, on the heels of Tiana, Rapunzel and Elsa – complexity.
I'd go so far as to say that Moana is the most self-realized heroine of the Disney movies, one who fully and utterly owns her story. There's no love interest, no damselling, no last minute Trinity Syndrome rearing its ugly head – in fact, it's remarkably telling that no other princess in the line-up has ever had a song climaxing in a simple assertion of her own identity ("I am Moana!") or a Disney animated film which has as its explicit theme: "who are you?"
It's been a source of constant frustration for me that ever since The Princess and the Frog, Disney has given their princess movies rather boring single-word "adjective" titles. The Bear and the Bow was changed to Brave just before its release, Rapunzel subsequently became Tangled and The Snow Queen was never anything but Frozen; neatly removing any gender from the titles so as not to alienate young male viewers, even though the original titles were much better.
So going in, I was a little surprised that this movie was so singularly called Moana instead of some other evasive adjective (like Drenched or Soaked). But having seen it, it's obvious that there really wasn't any choice. The film itself is so utterly about the journey and growth of this girl, that they couldn't possibly have called it anything else.
Christmas is just around the corner, and I still haven't done any shopping. For anyone. I'm usually pretty good with keeping on top of the Christmas overload, but this year I haven't even found time to put up a Christmas tree. So allow me to keep my head buried in the sand by pointing you toward various trailers and bits of news instead.
I often find myself thinking of Michelle Dockery's words regarding the success of Downton Abbey: she theorized it was because everyone enjoys a decent period piece, but for the most part were forced to watch Jane Austen adaptations over and over again. Since the Nineties and the success of the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle take on Pride and Prejudice, producers haven't been blind to the popularity of Austen novels or the money they make.
But what do you do when you've depleted the entire Jane Austen canon? And as a viewer, where do you turn if you're suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal and yet can't bring yourself to watch Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time?
The answer is what I'm going to call Jane Austen supplements. This is the material that isn't straightforward adaptations of her novels, but films and miniseries that are tangentially connected to her work, giving audiences all the trappings of a period drama without the predictability of plot. These related works are biopics, parodies and unofficial sequels, but having recently worked my way through them, I was struck by some of the common elements they all shared.
Jane Austen supplements expose the underlying and enduring appeal of this author, particularly in how she's now marketed to a modern audience. After watching seven of them (Death Comes to Pemberley, Lost in Austen, Austenland, Becoming Jane, Miss Austen Regrets, The Jane Austen Book Club and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) I was left with a theory as to what exactly people find so alluring about this particular subgenre, and what the writers/creators are specifically catering to when delivering them.
As always, I watched these two episodes back-to-back, and I'm glad I did. It means delaying my Korra fix for a week, but you end up getting a much juicier story as a result. But I was particularly nervous this time around given the dramatic improvement in the show and my hopes that the quality would remain high. I was nearly about to call it quits only for The Sting to end up surpassing my expectations, followed by the Beginnings two-parter, which completely blew me away. So I had my fingers crossed that these two episodes would continue to buck the trend. And they did!
Even better, I was completely unspoiled for the appearance of Iroh. These days, spoilers are well-nigh impossible to avoid. There are articles and interviews and promotional material that seem determined to give away every tiny surprise and plot-twist before it airs, and even if you manage to avoid all that, there's always the (good) chance that if you delay watching even for a single day, you'll accidentally end up seeing or hearing what happened on-line.
Spoilers are the bane of my existence, simply because I think they're the bane of storytelling's existence, but that's a rant for another day. Suffice to say that when Iroh appeared out of the darkness, I was genuinely and whole-heartedly surprised, not only at his appearance, but at the fact I didn't know it was going to happen. And I can't remember the last time that I was allowed to be totally unaware of where a story was heading. It was such a nice feeling.
Back in April I watched and reviewed the first episode in Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre, having never seen it as a child but being interested in its subject matter and Eighties aesthetic. I always meant to continue with the show, but haven't had the chance until now.
On reflection, Rumplestiltskin is a tough fairy tale to adapt. It’s a strange and sad story in a number of ways, centred on a woman who is surrounded on all sides by completely terrifying men. Her father's bragging lands her in captivity, her future husband keeps threatening to kill her if she doesn't obey his impossible commands, and the little man who comes to her rescue demands her firstborn child in exchange for saving her life.
It's horrifying. This woman's only speckle of agency comes when she orders servants to go out and discover Rumplestiltskin's name and so save her child. Yet even after she successfully defeats her baby from God only knows what fate, it's difficult to feel too happy for her: she's still married to a psycho who holds her life in his hands.
How to adapt such a depressing tale for a children's afterschool show?
I read and watched a LOT of stuff this month, which is apparently what happens when you complete your studies and get your diploma. So much free time. It's a bit scary. I clocked in four books, six movies and seven TV shows, plus a show at the Isaac Theatre Royal. Spies, archaeologists, robots, detectives, artists, superheroes – there was no real theme to the content, but it certainly made for an eclectic month.
God knows we're going to need top-notch escapism in the coming years, so hopefully you'll find something here that piques your interest.
This was one of my favourite giraffes, as it had such a simple but clever premise: designed to look like an old-fashioned wooden toy crane. Cranes have become a pretty normal part of the Christchurch landscape in the last few years, and this one was situated in Cathedral Junction: a tram stop under a high glass awning that miraculously escaped any serious damage during the quake.
Called Toy Toys and created by Martyn Giles, who apparently had help from his wife and children, my favourite detail would have to be the wood finish and the wheels on the feet; just to clarify that this is in fact a toy. Plus, it even featured Shrek's Pinocchio on each side.
This garbage fire disaster nightmare clusterfuck of a year continues with a series of earthquakes across New Zealand, killing two and causing extensive damage in several coastal towns. I'm reasonably safe where I am, though the difference between this quake and the big ones in 2010 and 2011 is down to just how long it went on for. I was drifting off to sleep when it hit, and for a while I didn't move since we're all used to little shakes every now and then.
But it just kept going and going and going – at the intensity of your average amusement park ride, but still: I was on the verge of serious fear that it wasn't going to stop at all. It must have lasted at least fifty seconds – which doesn't sound like much; but trust me, it does when you're stuck in a shaking building. Afterwards I went outside, feeling so dizzy that I couldn't walk in a straight line.
But despite kids getting the next day off school, everything went on pretty much as normal. What most people got out of it was this photograph of cows on an island of grass that had been thrust out of the ground by the quake:
Don't worry, we rescued them. Not only that, but we rescued them before air-lifting out tourists stranded in Kaikoura. Priorities.
So against this backdrop of political turmoil and natural disasters, it seems as apt a time as any to review X-Men Apocalypse.
It's hard to know what to say or do at times like these. The overwhelming emotion is one of powerlessness: that in the face of bigotry and fear and hate there is nothing anyone can do.
But over the past two days, words have come to me – oddly enough, from poets and authors I haven't read since I was a teenager. Recent events dislodged them in my mind, they rose to the surface, and the memory of them was compelling enough for me to seek them out.
I'm following pure instinct here, but I like to think that there's a smidgeon of fate at work: despite not having read these words in so many years, I was able to effortlessly find them again (a random scroll down through a PDF document landed on the exact passage I was searching for; almost as if it wanted to be found).
Though they may seem somewhat irrelevant, they've brought me some comfort; hopefully they will for you too.
Only ... I don’t even know where to start really. These two episodes not only revealed the origins of the Avatar, but fleshed out nearly every single story note that the show has ever had. Re-watching the original series will be a brand new experience, as now the viewer is armed with backstory that sheds light on everything from the lion turtles to the nature of bending to humanity's relationship with the spirits to the cosmic forces that shape the world. I’m still reeling a little bit from just how expansive and inclusive it all was.
The entire thing is framed by Korra’s experience as a survivor of a spirit attack that left her washed up on the shores of the Fire Nation, bereft of her memories. Thankfully, instead of something that’s going to be wrung out over the rest of the season for maximum angst, this Easy Amnesia is cleared up by the end of the two-parter, rendering it a simple plot device that provides the narrative excuse for her to float back in time to her very first incarnation.
I was all set to make Princess Moana the Woman of the Month for November – and then I found out that the film doesn't open in New Zealand cinemas until Boxing Day (which seems kinda unfair considering she's a Polynesian princess - we should be getting her first!) So I'm fast-forwarding the entry I had planned for December...
Yes, there were plenty of them, but the fantasy/scifi genre (at least in this decade) wasn't particularly kind to them. It was not only dominated by male characters, but more often than not it reduced many of the women to distressed damsels or supporting characters. I read another review that pointed out most Eighties heroines were hookers, victims or doormats, and it's sadly true – though I would also add "plot device" and "love interest" to the list.
As compelling as they are, the Child-Like Empress from The Neverending Story and Dana Barrett from Ghostbusters fundamentally exist as Distressed Damsels in the narrative, as does Ysabeau from Ladyhawke and Princess Buttercup from The Princess Bride.
Others play second-fiddle to the men, such as Kira from The Dark Crystal or Valerian from Dragonslayer, who each start out promisingly enough, only to succumb to Trinity Syndrome, allowing the male protagonists to take over the world-saving action. The same could be said of Brenda in Highlander, introduced as a proactive career woman who takes matters into her own hands – but who is ultimately (and literally) Conner's prize by the end of the story.
Excalibur has Morgana (evil), Guinevere (a pawn) and Igraine (a rape victim whose fate goes completely unexplained). Time Bandits has not a single noteworthy female character to speak of. Ditto Gremlins.
I seriously considered Princess Lili from Legend or Sarah from Labyrinth, both of whom go through fascinating coming-of-age journeys in their respective films, but they still aren't standouts compared to other characters I've featured in the past. And as good as Fairuza Balk is in Return To Oz, I've already covered Dorothy Gale this year.
Then I realized: Sorsha from Willow.
Though she's certainly not as iconic as the likes of Xena Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Princess Leia Organa, Sorsha still makes for a recognizable figure with her red hair and serrated sword, and her role in the film is surprisingly progressive for its time.
Sure, her characterization is still contingent on a High Heel Face Turn, in which the bravado and attractiveness of the male hero is enough to make her betray her mother, but Sorsha is a unique component in a movie that otherwise shamelessly cherry-picks from Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. At a stretch, Sorsha is a blend of Eowyn and Leia – if Leia had been raised by Darth Vader and if Eowyn had been able to ride into battle without disguising herself as a man.
That's right, the most interesting thing about Sorsha's role in the film is that no one ever questions her abilities as a leader or warrior. She's never objectified by the camera, there are never any gendered slurs used against her, and her armour is imminently practical.
In general, Willow is a fantasy film teeming with women in a way others simply aren't. Most have a token girl (usually a love interest and/or a distressed damsel) but as well as Sorsha, Willow has a woman as its Big Bad, its Living MacGuffin and its Wizard Classic. A woman makes the entire plot possible when she saves Elora's life at the start of the movie, and another provides Willow with the tools he needs to complete his quest. Heck, it even passes the Bechdel Test! Even today you don't see this level of representation. All that taken into account, I like to think that perhaps Sorsha had a much bigger impact on the fantasy genre than we give her credit for...